Understanding 8 Basic Wines

understanding 8 basic wines

So here’s what usually happens to me when I sit down at a restaurant to order a glass of wine.  First I find the part of the menu where they list things by the glass, then I decide if I went red wine or white wine.  If I’ve chosen white wine I decide if I want something sweet (Riesling) or not sweet (Chardonnay) – because clearly those are the only to types of white wine.  If I’ve chosen red wine, usually I blindly choose one.

However, there’s one restaurant where I always find it easy to choose what type of wine I want, and that’s Tria.  There’s three of them in Philadelphia – one located in Washington Square (a cafe), one located in Rittenhouse Square (a cafe), and one located in University City (the wine room).  Here’s why it’s easy.  For the wines, the beers, and the cheeses on their menu they’ve broken it down into categories.

wine beer cheese
bubbly invigorating clean
zippy whites beer luscious
smooth whites friendly stinky
luscious whites profound approachable
lighthearted reds extreme stoic
socialable reds racy
funky reds
bold reds
dessert wines

I don’t know about you, but those are all words my mouth can understand.  My favorite cheese I’ve ever had there was actually described as “sexy like silk pillows” – which is pretty much just awesome.  My roommate and I went this weekend so I could get some pictures, and then I got take out for dinner again last night.

Tria Montage Small

I asked Tria if they could help us out today by helping to explain the basic kinds of wine using words that my mouth would understand.  Sande Friedman, the Fermentation School Director, compiled some of the tastes incorporated into 8 basic wines that you will find on most menus.  It really is amazing exactly how many flavors go into each glass of wine.  Check it out.

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Understanding 8 Basic Wines

The first thing you must know is that the aromas of wine are divided into three categories – primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Primary aromas are specific to the grape variety, secondary come from the fermentation process and oak aging, and tertiary develop through bottled aging.


Merlot is a medium to full bodied wine with medium tannins (the mouth-puckering stuff you get from drinking red wine). The primary aromas of plum, blueberry/dark berry fruits meet the secondary aromas of coffee, fruit preserves, wet leaves, and clay.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is also a fuller bodied wine, but with high tannins (the mouth puckering stuff). Currants, cassis, and blackberries make up the primary aromas, which meet mint, eucalyptus, cedar, pencil lead, and wet gravel secondary aromas.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a lighter bodied red wine with high acid and low to medium tannins.  Its primary flavors include cherries (red, black, sour, Bing) and spice (primary aromas).  You can also find tertiary aromas of  smoke and dry leaves in this wine.


Shiraz in another full-bodied wine with lots of tannins.  Its primary aromas are black plum, raisin, and prunes.  The tertiary aromas gained from bottled aging are smoke, game, violets and earth.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a light to medium bodied wine with very high acid, which means that it is on the drier side of white wines.  It has primary aromas of lime, tart apple, and lemon curd, but also can be grassy, herbaceous and zesty.  If you like this style but want something a bit lusher, go for a Chenin Blanc, particularly from the Loire Valley.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio is a light to medium bodied wine with scents of lemon, apple, and quince. This wine can be fruity or this wine can be dry – there are lots of beautiful old-world versions from Italy that are elegant with just a touch of fruit, and lots of big, oaky fruity American versions as well.


Riesling is the greatest Chameleon in wine.  So versatile and the best food wine – it can be light-bodied with high acid, or rich and luscious with still great acid (acid is a good thing in wine, it cleans your palate).  The scents vary – you can get apple and quince, or floral and petrol.


Chardonnay is generally a medium to full-bodied with medium acid.  The flavors found in this wine include everything from apple, pear, pineapple, mango to mineral and wet stone to butter and brioche.

So now, you may be thinking what the heck to do words like wet gravel and dry leaves have to do with wine – because that was definitely my first thought.  So I asked.  Sande responded,

“Petrol is an aroma sort of reminiscent of gasoline or band-aid, but it’s actually a good thing. There’s not much better way to describe it, but is actually welcome and pleasant and appreciated by a lot of wine enthusiasts. The point of words like these are to emphasize that not all wine will smell outright fruity or like something common. There are funky, natural earthy aromas that pop up in different styles of wine, either from the grapes themselves or how they were treated. Wet stones and leaves, gravel, clay and etc all smell exactly like what they are and tend to represent the soils as well. For example, traditional Merlot grows best in really clay-rich soil, and that aroma is always slightly present in a true representation of that grape/wine.

The point is that if you open a bottle or smell a glass and a certain memory or aroma that isn’t traditional fruit comes to your mind, that’s probably what it really smells like! Your nose and senses are more creative than you give them credit for.”
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I also walked into Tria during lunch today and talked to a really nice guy named Shane who explained to me that words like wet gravel can also be talking about the minerality of the wine.  There are a lot of other components that define the wine that you don’t even necessarily consider such as the soil composition of the grapes, the elevation, the micro climate, and more.  Words like this bring back the old world with traditions – it’s what makes it not just a fruit juice anymore.  He actually looks specifically for wines that have an earthy component and some of those richer tertiary flavors.

Wow – that’s a lot of information.  SO, let’s break it down for your viewing (and pinning) pleasure.

Tria Wine Flavors

PS. Don’t forget to check out Wine and Cheese Party of 4 for Under $80, Pairing Wines with Pizza, Choosing Wine for the Holidays, a Wine and Cheese Party Game, and 5 Rules for Wine Pairing.

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  • Cate

    I am really enjoying your wine and parrings postings. I love to try new wines but I just never know how to start. This has been so informative and it gives me a jumping off point for my next dining expierence. Thanks!

    • Anytime!! I’m definitely learning too. And there’s three more posts to come 🙂

  • I am enjoying these wine posts also 🙂